Curiosity and innovation: the entrepreneurial mindset of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking died last week aged 76, having battled motor neurone disease to become one of the most respected and best-known scientists of our age. A man of great humour, he became a popular ambassador for science and was always keen to ensure that the general public had ready access to his work.

He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man, whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His book A Brief History of Time – a layman’s guide to cosmology – became an unlikely best-seller although it is unclear how many people actually managed to get to the end of it.

Was it mere coincidence that he was born 300 years to the day after Galileo Galileo died, in Oxford on 8 January 1942? After gaining a first-class degree in physics from Oxford, he went on to Cambridge for postgrad research in cosmology. While at Cambridge, aged 21, he was diagnosed with muscle-wasting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, which was to leave him almost completely paralysed.

In 1964, his doctors gave him no more than two or three years of life, but the disease progressed more slowly than expected. However, Hawking was confined to a wheelchair for much of his life, and as his condition worsened, he had to resort to speaking through a voice synthesiser and communicating by moving his eyebrows.

He was renowned for his extraordinary capacity to visualise scientific solutions without calculation or experiment, as once he could no longer write down equations, theories had to be translated into geometry in his head. After a tracheotomy in 1985, the ocean of his thinking had to be forced through a cumbersome and narrow technological aperture. His words necessarily became fewer, and emerged in a voice that was both robotic, and curiously laden with emotion – and frequently humour.

Undeterred by his condition, from 1979 to 2009, he was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton. In his day job, it was Black Holes in particular that he studied. He gave his name to ‘Hawking radiation’, which was not observed in his lifetime, which was why he never won a Nobel prize, but the link it provided between the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics was rich food for physicists’ imaginations.

He spent much of his career trying to find a way to reconcile Einstein’s theory with quantum physics, and produce a Theory of Everything, and it was this work that attracted most public attention and awareness through a successful film, with Eddie Redmayne taking on the role of the scientist in what was an inspiring biopic of Hawking.

He also impacted popular culture, staring in The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Futurama, and became the only person to play themselves on Star Trek where he played poker with Einstein and Newton.

Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease ignited a fresh sense of purpose. Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research, he once said.

What a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science, millions have had their horizons widened by his best-selling books, and even more have been inspired by his unique example of achievement against all the odds, a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.

Whilst we mourn the loss of one of the greatest scientists, creators and thinkers of C20th, here are a few things we could learn from this man about approaching the challenges in our startup businesses, based on some of the inspirational things he said.

Curiosity does not kill the cat Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.

Why did Hawking reach such great heights? Because he never stopped asking questions. I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer. Curiosity and asking questions can take you to new places, overcoming self-made barriers. Curiosity keeps you innovating, growing, and moving forward.

Time is your most precious resource I have so much that I want to do. I hate wasting time.

For someone whose life expectancy was supposed to be only 24 years, Hawking worked hard to make sure every minute of his life was used to create something great. Hawking proved time and again that life can give us great things if one is brave enough dream, believe and work hard.

In Hawking’s research about time, he remarked that it is impossible to turn back the clock. Never waste your time doing things that do not take you forward. Never waste your time doing things that do not help you grow.

Let nothing stop you from doing what you can do Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.

Hawking’s inability to speak did not stop him at any point in his life. Adapting to the environment around you, and using it to reach your goal is the sign of intelligence. Minor hiccups should not stop you from moving ahead, adapt to the change facing you, reroute and move forwards.

My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.

Obstacles are inevitable and uncontrollable. What you can control is your ability to use your strengths, without focusing too much on the hurdles and roadblocks.

Have a purpose Never give up work, Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.

Never be idle. There is always something that needs to be completed, find what you like and make it your driving force, your passion. When you enjoy doing something, it is no longer work. Don’t just keep the hands busy, keep the mind active as well.

I want my books sold on airport bookstalls, reflects Hawking’s humour, but passion for share his work. Hawking never took a day in his life, whether good or bad, for granted. He embraced life as it was and moved ahead, every single day. He advocated the mantra of living in the now and embracing the uncertainty.

Never give up It is no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else. Sometimes it is years before I see the way forward.

In the case of information loss and black holes, it was 29 years until Hawking had the answer he wanted. If there is just one take away from Stephen Hawking’s illustrious life, it is to never, ever stop trying. Give up and nothing seems possible in life. If he had given up right when he was diagnosed, then the world would have truly lost one of the greatest revolutionaries.

What a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science. Millions have had their horizons widened by his books. Many have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds — a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.

Be an optimist There should be no boundaries to human endeavour. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope. My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.

He had a very enviable wish to keep going and the ability to summon all his reserves, all his energy, all his mental focus and press them all into that goal of keeping going. Gone but never forgotten, Stephen Hawking’s demise will leave a vacuum in the field of science. But his research throughout the years has given physicists and cosmologists of today a path forward.

Humour is important to keep a balance The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.

Hawking will forever be associated with the concept of Black Holes, a complex and intriguing mental challenge as any you can imagine. He had a searing intellect to converse with the most mentally demanding matters but communicate them to everyone:

Einstein was wrong when he said, ‘God does not play dice’. Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.

Hawking tells me to think about what you’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world.

Hawking constantly lived in the future. When we talk about taking time to reflect and ponder about the future and new ideas for our startup, this is exactly what we have to do. In Hawking terms, we need to work on the business, not in the business.  But don’t just sit there and daydream, think and picture the alternate realities – realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, sometimes innovation starts with a critical decision to reinvent yourself and kick-start your thinking – a moment of truth, flash of brilliance or the end result of a bout of determined reflection to make a difference.

No philosophy that puts humanity anywhere near the centre of things can ignore the thinking of Hawking and its relevance to our everyday attitudes of hope, optimism and endeavour. All that remains is to huddle together in the face of the overwhelmingness of reality. Yet the sight of one huddled man in a wheelchair constantly probing, boldly and even cheekily demonstrating the infinite reach of the human mind, gave people some hope to grasp, as he always wished it would.

The message is that Black Holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out…

As a man who overcame such incredible obstacles and lived such a brave and amazing life, this advice couldn’t come from a better place.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: Dominique Ansel’s Cronuts

Everywhere you look in New York City today, you see tech or creative startup spaces. The chaotic, hardscrabble, overstuffed, raging, romping, intoxicating, alluring, terrifying melting pot that is New York inspires. There’s a history of creative disruption here that casts a shadow down Broadway and the Bowery for more than three centuries, with a host of entrepreneurial endeavours.

It’s a city with a rich heritage of business pioneers. Titans of C19th and C20th industry have a legacy marked by buildings bearing their name that dominate the skyline, their omnipresence provides a backdrop and frame of reference to those setting out today about making their own mark.

Entrepreneurship is an endeavour that often requires a suspension of reality to clear mind-space for contrarian ideas, possibilities on the edge of their time, and creation of something that has not yet been. The culture and history of NYC provides a great backdrop for this thinking.

The great thing about entrepreneurship is that there are few limitations when you are equipped with the right mind-set. So a mime artist dreamer and a tablet toting spreadsheet loving tech entrepreneur walk into a bar – it doesn’t have to be the start of a joke but the meeting place for a creative teaming experience that can lead to great success and inspiration for all.

You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s a state of mind, an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but they are as much entrepreneurs as product inventors or app developers. Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life.

Right beside you are your creative tools. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire. What chefs do is take an idea and manifest it into reality. They take a vision that existed nowhere else but in their own mind, and actualising it into reality through their work. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.

On May 10, 2013, Dominique Ansel’s did just this. He started selling a croissant-doughnut hybrid, which he called the Cronut, from his New York bakery. Nine days later, he’d registered the pastry’s name and crowds of people were queuing around the block to try the new innovative delicacy.

Last week I enjoyed a couple of Cronuts and coffee in his bakery café in a quiet stretch of Spring Street in Soho, New York. The creator of Cronuts isn’t just a baker. Dominique opened his little bakery with just four employees five years ago. Flash-forward to 2016, hundreds of creations later, a sister shop in the West Village and now across the world in Tokyo and London. He’s as much an entrepreneur as any tech rock star.

Prior to starting his own business, Dominique was executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud’s flagship French restaurant in NYC. During his six years there, he was part of the team that led the restaurant to receive its first four-star New York Times Rating and three Michelin stars. He also spent seven years at the venerable French bakery Fauchon, where he was in charge of international expansion and helped set up shops in Russia, Egypt, Kuwait and other locations around the world.

Despite his ritzy resumé, the ‘Cronut King’ comes from humble origins. The youngest of four children, he grew up in Beauvais, about an hour north of Paris. His father was a factory worker, and the family couldn’t afford college, so Dominique began working at 16, training to be a chef and saving money.

At 19, he left home to complete a mandatory year of service in the French military, where he worked as a cook. After returning home he headed to Paris, not knowing anyone, and landed the job at Fauchon, where he quickly worked his way up from a temporary holiday season staffer to traveling the world and being in charge of international expansion.

With his unstoppable creativity, the New York Post proclaimed him the Willy Wonka of NYC, Food & Wine called him the culinary Van Gogh of our times, the most feted pastry chef in the world. With successful bakeries in London and Tokyo following New York off the back of the Cronut, he must be doing something right. a croissant-doughnut hybrid that became the most virally popular pastry of its time.

Believe me, they’re really, really good. The Cronut offers all the crumbly benefits of a croissant with the doughy sweetness of a doughnut. Sweet doesn’t really cover it – there’s a two Cronut limit, but eating any more would probably constitute a health hazard. Made with laminated dough, each Cronut is topped with a different colour of frosting and flavour, and each pastry is packed delicately, an elegant box in an elegant bag. If the only thing standing between you and opulence is five bucks and a long line, you might wait, too. But it was well worth the wait.

Ansel has a portfolio of innovative products he’s created – for example the Kouign Amann, a Breton inspired caramelised croissant with tender flaky layers on the inside and a crunchy caramelised shell a crispy shell on the outside. Then there is the Frozen S’more, inspired by the Turkish dondurma, made with Tahitian vanilla ice cream on the insider that’s covered in chocolate feulletine, then enveloped in honey marshmallow, placed on an applewood-smoked willow branch and torched to order.

This blog could evolve into a Masterchef critique, but I couldn’t help but think that his self-starter ambitions and product innovation provides some good entrepreneurship lessons. Dominique Ansel is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and innovative pastry chefs in the world and for good reason.  He combines craft, nostalgia, analogies, complexity, surprise, shapes, interesting presentations, contrasting textures, and wow factor into his creations.  So what are the entrepreneurial lessons we can take from his craftsmanship?

Time as an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and extreme freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and fun, novel presentations – an aspect Dominique obsesses over to deliver the best possible product – is that each item be served at the optimal moment, when it’s at its peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. It was the first time I’d heard of time described as an ingredient, but it made total sense, and it is one of his guiding themes. Timing is everything for all entrepreneurs.

Put emotion into products One of the screening criteria for what makes the cut to appear on his menu is that the item evokes emotions, often nostalgic emotions tied to childhood, like the warm madeleines that Proust wrote about, or memories of summer camping the Frozen S’mores evoke, or the memories of milk and cookies after school his milk filled chocolate chip cookie shots evoke, or the traditional little pastries from Bordeaux, France called cannelés. Emotion engages customers is a key lesson.

Multisensory innovation Ansel’s creations have textural and temperature contrasts, like the liquid milk and soft cookies, or the S’mores with the soft honey marshmallow exterior, smooth and creamy ice cream inside and the crisp chocolate feuilletine that separate the warm marshmallow exterior from the cold, creamy ice cream inside. Capturing the customer’s imagination is vital for a startup with a new product to market.

Continuous product iteration Ansel’s is always searching for ways to make his products even better, he subscribes to the notion, and works in an environment where the products can evolve on the fly. This is a luxury other product categories can’t to the same degree, so gives him advantage. Build a culture where there is a focus on continuous development and iteration.

Be a relentless learner Ansel’s evidences the appetite for learning that is seen in many successful entrepreneurs.  Given how accomplished he is, you’d think there wasn’t much room for improvement, yet he feels there is so much more to try and do and create in his field. Build an ethos to always keep moving, innovating, learning, and growing.

Use your team as a source of new ideas Ansel constantly brainstorms with his staff.  The menu changes every 6-8 weeks, so the teams are always coming up with new ideas together.  He schedules regular tasting with to give feedback on new menu ideas and what ultimately ends up being added.  Use your team’s knowledge and experience as a source of innovation.

Combine ideas The Cronut pastries are not only a creative take on donuts and croissants, but also French and American cultures, combining a classic French pastry with America’s love for the familiar flavours of a caramel, chocolate and peanut combinations.  Keep an on open mind to serendipity.

Be authentic Ansel is an expert at the basics of pastry cooking as a foundation for innovation. If you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate.  Dominique trained in classic French pastry, it’s an invaluable knowledge he brings to bear in deviating on traditional classics. Build your business on solid foundations before flying off at a creative tangent.

Trust yourself Dominique Ansel is always thinking broadly, about all the different ways he can innovate to make the experience of visiting his establishments special, different, memorable, and wonderful. In a recent interview, he was asked: ‘How do you know that what you’re doing is right?’. There was an awkward silence. Dominique put his hand on his heart and replied, in a serene, untroubled tone: I just know.

We live in an age where you can make anything possible. If you have an idea, just go for it. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, because the perfect opportunity is now.